The Rif was always an independent and autonomous area despite the fact that part of it was occupied. In this area they repeatedly and fiercely resisted various occupiers, such as Portugal, Spain and the sultans of Fes and Marrakech.
In the course of time, several sovereign states were founded by the Riffians, such as the state of Nekour and the state of Amejjaou. Perhaps the last state they founded was the ‘Arifublik’ inspired by the creation of the French Republic after the fall of the royal house, there. Maybe this was the reason to revolt against the ‘Emirate system’ and, following the European example (with which the Riffians always maintained a lot of contact) to create their own form of state: the Arifublik.
When Spain attempted to occupy the Rif at the beginning of the last century, it met with fierce resistance from the Riffians. The Spaniards had and number of defeats to collect resulting in the final defeat at the battle of Anoual, which therefore played an important role in the creation of Rif republic in 1921.
On September 18, 1921, under the leadership of Mohammed Abdelkrim al Khattabi (1882-1963), the Rif state was proclaimed. A state with its own government, parliament, anthem, currency, army, etc.
The European colonial powers saw in this young state a threat because the proclamation of an independent state by the Riffians could be seen as an example by other occupied peoples and as a source of inspiration.
For this reason, Spain, ‘Morocco’, the USA, Germany and France formed an international coalition. The US supplied pilots (mercenaries), Germany supplied poison gas and France, together with Spain, sent about half a million soldiers to the Rif.
During this war, which lasted from 1921 to 1927, this coalition did not hesitate to use poison gas against unarmed civilians. The president of the Rif, Mohammed Abdel Krim el Khattabi, turned to the international community, but there was no reaction from this quarter.
That is why he was forced to surrender to France in 1926, who then banished him to Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. The Rif fell largely under Spanish and partly under French rule. In 1956, the Rif was handed over to Morocco.
The establishment of Moroccan authority in the Rif created tensions among the Riffians. This was caused by the replacement of Riffian officials by new Moroccan officials who behaved feudally.
This eventually culminated in the People’s Revolt of 1958 and 1959.
This revolt was brutally crushed, with the Moroccan authorities not shying away from mass murders, rapes and destruction of crops. These crimes against humanity are the subject of a transcription of a web lecture in the Tarifit, given in 2019 by the Riffian linguist Khalid Bouyaala, edited and translated by the editors of Amazigh Information Center.
In the Riffian Language this rebellion is known by several names such as; Asgwas Iqebban (the year of helmets) or Asgwas n Tfadist (the year of mastic tree) and the Moroccan researcher and historian Zaki M’Barek (1940-2019) calls it the ‘evacuation rebellion’.
The economic situation in the Rif after Moroccan independence was bad. The Rif lived from traditional agriculture and is therefore dependent on rainfall. After 1956 a period of drought started in the Rif which lasted two years. This was already disastrous, on top of that the income from seasonal labor stopped. The independence war of 1954 in Algeria prevented many Riffians from travelling there for a living.
The Algerian resistance against France, which had occupied the country since 1830, also deepened the economic crisis in the Rif.
As mentioned earlier, the Moroccan government replaced the colonial officials. However, these ‘Moroccan’ officials were poorly informed about the situation in the Rif. For example, they had not realized that the Riffians did not speak Arabic and/or French, but their own language and/or, if they were better educated, Spanish, because this was used by the colonial rulers present at the time and they were suddenly sidelined.
In addition, these officials behaved arrogantly towards the Rif people. It could be that a man went with his mother, wife, sister or daughter to a town hall for an administrative act, then it was demanded of him (often in a language incomprehensible to him) that the women had to take their headscarves off. In the Rif this is interpreted as provocation.
Another problem is that the Spanish money the Peseta was replaced by the French currency the Franc, as a result of which the Spanish money available to the Rif was suddenly worthless.
Moreover, the Moroccans imposed taxes on the Riffians, for example those who have fertile trees such as fig trees counted them and taxes were charged on them, the same goes for animals such as sheep and cows.
So because of all this, there was no longer any prospect of life for the Riffians in their own country and they rebelled against Moroccan officials, claiming their rights.
But not only the economic situation forced the Riffians to revolt. The political situation also led to the protests and resistance.
At that time the Istiqlal, of Ahmed Balafrej, Allal al Fassi and Mehdi Ben Barka was the largest party. This party pursued a one-party system, as in Tunisia. But at that time several political actors were active. Such as the party of Choura & Istqlal, of the palace itself, the liberation army ALN, France, Spain and Mohammed Abdelkrim el Khattabi.
This was the time of the negotiations with France on the ‘independence of Morocco’. It was also the time when the ALN, led by Abbas Messaadi (1925-1956), fought an armed struggle against the occupiers of the Reef just after these negotiations began. The ALN was allied with the Riffian president in exile Mohammed Abdelkrim el Khattabi. He declared that the fight against colonization in North Africa will continue until all soldiers of the occupiers have left the Maghreb countries.
This worried the French rulers because they feared that with Morocco’s independence, the ALN would continue its armed struggle in Algeria, as they were striving for a completely independent Maghreb.
It was for this reason that the Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed V (1909-1961), informed France that he controlled the ALN. In addition, the Istiqlal party wanted to include the ALN in his party in order to encapsulate ALN’s power.
The leader of ALN, Abbas Messaadi, was murdered on July 27, 1956, according to the royal palace he was killed by order of Mehdi Ben Barka (1920-1965). A proposal was made to the ALN: integrate in the Moroccan army FAR, or join the resistance against the Spanish troops in southern Morocco, or fight against French troops in Algeria. Approximately 5,000 ALN fighters joined FAR, and some of them joined the resistance in southern Morocco. They were destroyed in a joint Spanish and French military operation called Ouragan / Écouvillon.
The sultan felt threatened by the ALN and by the Istiqlal party. The latter got too much power. And so the idea arose to play the two off against each other. First, in order to create balance in the political arena, a new political party was founded: the Mouvement Populaire (MP) he left the execution to a former officer of the French army Mahjoubi Aherdan (1921-2020) and the doctor Abdelkrim al Khatib (1921-2008). These two figures decided to respond to the feelings of the Riffians, who were in a hopeless situation. They took the initiative to reburial Abbas Messaadi, who was buried in Fes, in 1958 in his native soil, in Ajdir (Izennayen), but he originally came from Ayt Atta.
The ruling Istiqlal party opposed this reburial. The anger focused on the Moroccan government who wanted to prevent the reburial of their resistance hero. Of course, the action of Mahjoubi Aherdan and Abdelkrim al Khatib was not born out of love for the Riffs, they wanted to create a split between their two opponents and they succeeded. The Riffians set fire to the offices of Istiqlal, with which the action of the agitators Mahjoubi Aherdan and Abdelkrim al Khatib had succeeded.
With that the rebellion in the Rif is a fact. The crisis in the Rif has been seized by others to pursue their political goals. After the release of Mohammed Mmis n Rhaj Sellam Amezian (1925-1995) from prison, he was visited by Riffians who complained about the crisis, the tyranny of the Istiqlal party and asked him for advice.
He declared that he did everything in his power to prevent them from engaging in armed combat because they did not have any weapons at their disposal; this crisis had to be resolved with common sense.
To this end, a committee was set up to conduct the negotiations. This committee consisted of: Mohammed Mmis n Rhaj Sellam Amezian, an uncle of his Muhand Amezian, son of Abdelkrim Khattabi, Rachid Khattabi and a few resistance fighters who fought together with Abdelkrim against the occupiers. And there is a set of demands, the son of Mohammed Mmis n Rhaj Sellam Amezian speaks about 17 demands, while the anthropologist David Montgomery Hart (1927-2001) speaks about 18 demands.
For example, they demanded that all foreign armies should leave the Reef, Abdelkrim el Khattabi should return to the Rif. All political parties had to be disbanded in order to form a national government, release all prisoners and accelerate the Arabization. Mohammed Mmis n Rhaj Sellam Amezian says that they were received by King Mohammed V who promised to meet the demands. He even says that a few demands have actually been met. According to the son of Mohammed Mmis n Rhaj Sellam Amezian, Ben Barka changed the king’s mind. He told him that the Riffians were looking for independence. At the same time, the Riffians sent all Moroccan officials out of the Rif.
Sellam Amezian’s uncle, Muhand Amezian, told him that for six months no Moroccan soldier was seen in the Rif, but other sources speak of 3 months. The Moroccan government was under the assumption that if they weren’t present on the Rif, the Rifs would get into conflict with each other, but the opposite happened. It surprised the government that it stayed so quiet in the Rif, that the people didn’t kill each other and that the Riffians governed themselves. That made them so worried that it was decided to intervene in the Rif with a large military force.
The New York Times reported on October 28, 1958 that Morocco declared the Rif a military area, namely the triangle Al Hoceima, Nador and Aknoul, because the Rif people protested against repression and the treatment by Moroccan officials in the Rif.
On 18 November 1958, the army held a military parade in Tétouan. The New York Times of 17 November 1958 writes that “the King chose Tétouan as the venue for the annual military parade” originally planned in the southern city of Marrakech. The parade of almost half of the armed forces would not just be a simple display of power. The parade was considered as an excuse to bring the army discreetly to the north of Morocco”.
More than three-quarters of the FAR’s troops were sent to the Rif. The head of this large army was Crown Prince Hassan (1929-1999) who held the position of chief of staff of the army. His younger brother Abdellah Al Alaoui (1935-1983) also went to Rif at that time to see the ‘show’ up close.
Then there was a terrible massacre: heavy war machines such as tanks and airplanes were used against defenceless people in the Rif. There are reports about the use of napalm bombs. Victims testify to mass rapes of both men and women, the bellies of the pregnant Rif women were ripped open by Moroccan soldiers who gambled on whether the fetus was a boy or a girl, the harvest was stolen or set on fire.
The Al Hoceima region was declared a military area at that time by a decree, which is still in force today. According to academics, the number of victims is between 8 and 10 thousand dead, activists speak of more than 20,000 dead.
Before the military actions in the Rif were started, a government was formed from members of the Istiqlal party, as a kind of reparation for the fact that their offices in the Rif were set on fire.
The Istiqlal was the instrument and the palace is the principal. This was evident from a speech by King Hassan II in January 1984, in which he called upon the Reefs who do not yet know Hassan II to re-read history and pay special attention to what Prince Hassan did in the Rif in 1958/59, in other words: “I punished the Riffians in 1958/1959 and if you reclaim your rights I will do the same again”.
Abdelkrim el Khattabi asked King Mohammed V, during a visit in 1960, what the Moroccan army did to the Rif. Muhammad V answered that the Riffians shouldn’t have rebelled against their king. Abdelkrim replied that this was not the case, the Rif had rebelled against the Spanish and French occupying armies in the Rif. To which Mohammed V added “I promise you that within three years from now, there will be no more foreign soldiers in the Rif.
There is evidence to the contrary, for example that Abdelkrim el Khattabi sent a letter to Mohamed Hassan Ouazzani (1910-1978) on July 27, 1960, in which he states that planes with French pilots, at that time Morocco had not yet attacked war planes, villages and markets in the Rif, in this letter Abdelkrim el Khattabi details how many people were abducted, how many women were murdered and other information about the victims of Moroccan military operations in the Rif.
Mahjoubi Aherdan denies the repression against the Riffians and speaks of restoring order in the Rif. But a few weeks before the uprising, he declares to the AFP that Morocco’s independence is due to the Riffians, which is ambiguous to say the least.
The winners of this rebellion are France and the royal palace, the Riffians paid for it with their blood, the Istiqlal also came out as a loser although it played a dubious role.
The first battle the Moroccan army fought was against the Rif. At that time, the palace and the Istiqlal planned to build a highway they called unity, a road that would unite the Rif with Morocco. If Morocco and the Rif were one, why did this road get this name?
Muhend, an uncle of Sellam Amezian, says that when Spain handed over the Rif to Morocco, the autonomy of the Rif under Spanish administration was discussed, and this is logical for a country that is occupied.
There are issues that still need to be investigated such as: what did the elite mean for Abdelkrim el Khattabi? And why did he only send weapons to the Rif?
With Morocco’s independence in 1956, the Moroccan colonization of the Rif began.
1) Mustafa Aarab, De vergeten geschiedenis van het Marokkaanse Rif (2009) [NL]
2) Germain Ayache, La guerre du Rif (1981) [FR]
3) Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, La guerre du Rif (2008) [FR]
4) Ignace Dalle, Les trois rois: la monarchie marocaine, de l’indépendance à nos jours (2004) [FR]
5) La mémoire d’un roi. Hassan II, (entretiens avec Eric Laurent) (1993) [FR]
6) Remy Leveau, Le Fellah marocain: défenseur du trône (1985) [FR]
7) Maâti Monjib, La monarchie marocaine et la lutte pour le pouvoir (1992) [FR]
8) Gilles Perrault, Notre ami le roi (1990) [FR]
9) John Waterbury, Le commandeur des croyants: la monarchie Marocaine et son élite (1975) [FR] / John Waterbury,
The Commander of the Faithful: the Moroccan political elite — a study in segmented politic (1970) [EN]
10) Research of Ahmed Zahid, ‘Intifadat al rif 1958/1959 al dakira wa al tarikh’ (2005) [AR]
For more information on this topic see:
Video Compilation about the Moroccan army [FR/NL]
Testimony of a victim of crimes committed by the Moroccan regime in the Rif [AR/NL]
French army shoots the Riffians with heavy weapons
Testimony of a pilot about bombing of Rif (AR/NL)
Documentary about the revolt of the Rif 1958/1959 [RIF/EN]
King Hassan II speech, January 1984 [AR/NL]
Transtaltion: Najat M.